The danger of nature-writing in 2014 is glaringly obvious: nature itself is in full retreat on most parts of the planet. Species are going extinct at a rate unseen in millions of years; environments are being destroyed so quickly that the deterioration can be measured year by year and sometimes month by month; animal species even recently secluded from mankind are now being hunted to extinction as simple food items. Such circumstances want to make celebrations of animal species seem naive, even though such celebrations are every bit as worthwhile as they ever were. It’s a tricky line for the writers of such books to walk, and yet 2014 saw a handful of such books that did a great job.
- The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin) – The years when a Heinrich book can appear on this list are always good ones (and he’s on the Best Reprints list as well – doubly good!), and this book is Heinrich at his best, taking a large and complicated subject – how and why animals engage in the sometimes-enormous migrations they undertake. You can read my review here.
- The Galapagos by Henry Nicholls (Basic Books) – This comprehensive and finely-written history and natural history of the Galapagos Islands is, I discover, even better to re-read than it was to read intially. Nicholls is a very able storyteller, and he’s wonderfully skilled at compressing huge amounts of information into a smooth and colorful narrative. You can read my review here
- A Message from Martha by Mark Avery (Bloomsbury Natural History) – The American emblem of the tricky underside of nature books I mentioned is surely the passenger pigeon, which once filled American skies in uncountable numbers and was extinct within a single generation of Americans realizing that fact. The last passenger pigeon was Martha, whose death in 1914 kicks off Avery’s sensitive and ultimately hopeful book. You can read my review here
- The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis (Thomas Dunne) – This marvellous natural history of the Great Lakes certainly walks that fine line, since the Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s standing fresh water, are currently retreating faster than they’ve ever done in their history. Dennis expertly tells the stories of all the various lifestyles that depend on the Lakes for survival, and he’s equally good on the nature of these vast spaces. Anybody who’s ever spent time in this incredible landscape should read this book.
- The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt) – This book, the most rhetorically powerful of the ones on this list, takes as its actual subject the tricky balancing-line I mentioned at the top: it’s about the holocaust currently happening to life on Earth. She manages it with grace and even, amazingly, some tenacious optimism, and the result is one of those rare books every single one of us should read. You can read my review here
- Bears in the Backyard by Ed Ricciutti (Countryman Press) – One of the natural by-products of the depredation of the natural world in the 21st Century is fairly straightfoward: if humans destroy the habitats of other animals faster than they destroy those other animals, those other animals will have no choice but to move into the artificial habitats humans have created for themselves. That unwilling migration is the subject of Ricciutti’s lively, enjoyable book. Like so many of our authors this time around, he, too, tries his best to inject an element of optimism into his account of the increasing entanglements between humans and the bears, coyotes, cougars, wolves, and other animals who can no longer avoid them.
- The Cougar by Paula Wild (D & M Publishers) – In fact, the increase of human encounters with the wild is at the heart of Wild’s fascinating and informative volume about mountain lions. True, she does a fine job of giving her readers the natural history of these terrifying (if, I grudgingly admit, elegant) animals. But she can’t help but focus on the interaction element, since more and more humans are encountering cougars in their suburbs. It’s a very refreshing snapshot. You can read my review here
- The Fish in the Forest: Salmon and the Web of Life by Dale Stokes (University of California Press) – Sometimes really good examples of nature-writing and natural history are achieved through extremely fine focus – study one particular patch of ground, one species, even one particular individual animal – and this beautifully-written book by Dale Stokes is one of those books, focusing on the salmon of the Pacific Northwest and extending the narrative outward to show it for the keystone species it is. It would be a shame if a book this good were noticed only by anglers.
- The Beavers of Popple’s Pond by Patti Smith (Green Writers Press) – Here’s another fine example of a nature-writer who achieves her wonderful effects through close focus: in this case, a family and society of beavers in Vermont. She watches this tightly-knit society for many years with a scientist’s attention and a poet’s sensibility, and the result is not only fascinating but in fact uplifting. Anyone with a love of the great outdoors should go straight to the Green Writer Press website and order a copy of this book.
- The Owl Who Liked to Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The best nature book of 2014 is this hugely intelligent and eloquent memoir about Windrow’s experiences living with a tiny owl with an enormous personality. The surprisingly fruitful man-meets-owl sub-genre has scarcely ever been done better than this. You can read my review here
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